Eckley Historic District
The Eckley Historic District (Pennsylvania Anthracite Museum–Eckley Village Unit) was first listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 at which time it was designated as a Pennsylvania Museum, even though 200 people still lived there. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of a subsequent nomination document, prepared in 1978. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
Since 1854 Eckley and the land area around it have been the scene of anthracite mining activities. Today, the village, surrounded by active strip mining operations, consists of 58 major structures and outbuildings. Most significant are four Mine Owners' Houses, a Doctor's Office, 47 Workers' Houses, and a Catholic Church and Rectory, all of which are of frame construction and have undergone little exterior alteration since their erection by Sharpe, Weiss, and Company between 1854 and 1874.
When Richard Sharpe and his partners commenced operations in the Eckley area in 1854, they first set up a sawmill to provide lumber, not only for timbering the mine shaft they were drilling but for constructing a complete mining town as well. Probably by the end of that year most of the residences now extant in Eckley had been completed under the direction of the engineering department of Sharpe, Weiss, and Company. In planning the town, the company followed a policy of social stratification which divided the village into four classes. The houses on the western edge were reserved for the company's owners; the residences next to them for mine superintendents, foremen, and the town's professional classes; the dwellings next to this group went to first class miners; and the less desirable edifices near the eastern edge of the village were for second class miners and slate pickers. During the next few years the mining patch continued to expand, and by 1861 residents of Eckley could boast about three churches and schools, a hotel, a butcher shop, a tailor shop, a doctor's office, several mining buildings, a large coal breaker, and over 150 residences.
After John Leisenring leased the property in 1875, Eckley continued to grow. By the time his lease expired in 1886, the village's population had reached 1,500 and it had three streets with well-maintained dwellings. Although Eckley B. Coxe constructed a new breaker after taking over the Eckley operation in 1886, his decision to engage in strip mining marked the beginning of the village's gradual decline. Over the years, the buildings on the back streets on either side of Main Street disappeared as stripping operations expanded. Sometime around World War I less attention was given to the maintenance and care of the houses and buildings on Main Street, and they began gradually to deteriorate. For years virtually no additional construction of any consequence took place. In the 1930's a local social club constructed a meeting place called "Emerald House," and in 1968 Paramount Pictures built a breaker, company, store, and mule barn as progs for its shooting of "The Molly Maguires." Since the State assumed ownership of Eckley in 1970, all structures have been stabilized, a sewage and water treatment system installed, and a modern visitor center and museum constructed. Today the village has a population of 140, most of whom live in the old workers' houses for which they pay a monthly rental of $11.50.
Mine Owners' Houses — When Richard Sharpe, Francis Weiss, Asa L. Foster, and John Leisenring constructed the mining village in 1854, they reserved a section on the western edge for their own residences which were segregated from the rest of the town by the commercial district. Although these four houses range in height from two to two and one-half stories and differ somewhat in their configuration, all are designed in a somewhat restrained Gothic Revival style and are capped with gabled roofs. All are of frame construction, feature locally sawed hemlock siding, and rest on mud-cemented stone foundations. With their pointed windows, corbeled brick chimneys, and elaborately carved woodwork, they present a sharp contrast to the plain houses occupied by the rest of the population.
In recent years the exterior of the Sharpe House, which stands on the extreme western edge of town, has been covered with a red asbestos siding that resembles brick, while the Weiss House, located directly east, has been left in its natural state. Both edifices appear to be in good condition, but the Foster and Leisenring Houses, which are east of them, are somewhat deteriorated.
Doctor's Office — This deteriorated 2-1/2 story edifice is the only surviving structure in what was once Eckley's commercial district. Of wood frame construction, the building is sheathed in hemlock siding, sits on mud-cemented native stone foundations, and is capped with a gabled roof. Windows are of the six-over-six wood sash variety and are set in rectangular surrounds. In later years, the structure became a private residence, but at present, it appears to be vacant.
Workers' Houses — The 47 surviving edifices that comprise this section are of five distinct types. These include ten 2-1/2 story single family dwellings grouped along the south side of Main Street near the center of the village; five 2-1/2 story single houses, somewhat larger and more elaborate than the rest and constructed for company officials and the clergy; four two-story double occupancy houses whose gable ends face front and rear; twelve two-story duplexes whose gables are on the sides; and sixteen 1-1/2 story two-family dwellings with gables on the sides. All these houses have certain common characteristics. These include mud-cemented stone foundations, wood frame construction, hemlock siding, gable roofs, six-over-six wood sash type windows, centrally located interior chimneys that pierce the roof at its apex, and small root cellars.
Most of the houses have shed roof porches, and many have one-story rear additions that appear to date from at least the late 19th century. Each residence also has a number of outbuildings, and many of these are believed to have been constructed at the same time as the houses. During the Sharpe-Weiss era and for some years afterward, these houses were painted red and had either black or white trim. In later years they were unpainted, and their exteriors eventually returned to their natural state. When Paramount made the movie here in 1968, the houses were spray painted green to give them a more drab appearance. During the last 10 years most of that paint has worn away, and Eckley's dwellings have regained their natural weathered appearance.
The condition of these houses varies from excellent to poor. Most, however, are in goad condition, due in part to a State program to stabilize them. Present plans call for at least five of these residences to be completely restored — one for each of the five nationalities that came to Eckley to work in the mines.
Catholic Church and Rectory — Constructed in 1861, this Gothic Revival church and adjacent rectory, situated near the eastern edge of Eckley, are the only original structures associated with the village's religious life still standing. In 1861 the Philadelphia Catholic Diocese created a mission parish in Eckley, the village's Catholics built a church and rectory, and on October 25 of that year, Bishop Wood of Philadelphia consecrated the altar. The following year the church, which was popularly called St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, received its first pastor. At the time the church was established, most of its communicants were Irish, and that nationality came to dominate it. When Catholics from other nationalities began to arrive in great numbers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they refused to attend it and went to churches in neighboring communities controlled by their own people. By the 1920's attendance at the Eckley church had declined to such an extent that it was reduced to the status of a mission church. After World War II, it closed permanently.
The southwardly facing church is a 1-1/2 story, L-shaped edifice which rests on mud-mortared stone foundations over a partially raised full basement. Of wood frame construction, the building is sheathed with white painted board-and-batten siding and is capped with a gable roof which features a small wooden cross of relatively recent vintage. Exterior ornamentation is provided by Gothic window and door openings, a boxed pedimented cornice along the front (south) facade, a plain boxed cornice with returns at the entrance, and a dentiled cornice along the roofline.
When the Eckley church closed, its interior furnishings were removed. Recently the State acquired the interior of a similar church in a nearby town and will use those furnishings to restore the church to its appearance around the turn of the century. Presently the church's exterior is in excellent condition.
The two-story rectory, which is situated approximately 50 feet east of the church, currently serves as a private residence. Like the church, it faces southward, rests on mud-mortared stone foundations, is of wood frame construction, and is covered with board-and-batten siding. It is capped with a multi-gabled roof which has a steeply pitched large center gable along the front (south) facade which features vergeboard trim. Although the edifice has some Gothic window and door openings, rectangular shaped ones predominate, and most windows are of the rectangular sash variety. The structure's overall condition appears to be very good.
Sites of original Buildings — Since the State took over Eckley in 1970, an effort has been underway to locate the sites of buildings that were either demolished or moved away to other towns. To date the sites of the post office and company store, hotel, sawmill, breaker, Episcopal church, and Presbyterian church have been discovered. Recently, a Gothic Revival church, similar in design to the original, was moved from another town to Eckley and placed on the site of the Episcopal church. The State has a long-range plan whereby many of the early Eckley buildings will either be reconstructed or ones similar in design will be moved to the sites. It is possible that some Eckley structures like the Presbyterian church, which was moved in 1894 to nearby Freeland and veneered in brick, can be discovered, acquired, and brought back to their original sites.
Other Structures — Within the boundary of the inventoried property are a number of structures of relatively recent vintage that do not contribute to the national significance of the property. These include a one-story modern visitor center and museum, constructed of reddish brick and situated on the eastern edge of the village a few feet south of the Catholic Church and Rectory; a one-story building with false front known as Emerald House, constructed in the 1930's near the center of town by a local social club; and a company store, mule barn, and breaker, constructed near the center of town in 1968 by Paramount Pictures.
The boundary consists of approximately 32.29 acres and contains the most significant structures and sites associated with the early development of Eckley.
The village of Eckley is a primary extant example of the mining towns which helped make Pennsylvania, says economic historian Eliot Jones, "the greatest anthracite producing section in the world" and which made "the history of the anthracite coal industry of the United States..., in effect, a history of the anthracite coal industry of the State of Pennsylvania." To a certain extent Eckley's founding in 1854 can be attributed to the Nation's first energy crisis, a shortage of abundant and cheap wood for heating purposes in the cities of the East. During the 1840's anthracite coal began to replace wood in many homes and businesses, making possible, according to historian Frederick M. Binder, "a new age in domestic comfort and convenience." By 1860 more than 8 million tons of coal were being mined and shipped from the anthracite region in eastern Pennsylvania. Anthracite came into general use in industry as well, and "by the end of the Civil War," says Binder, it had become "basic to the comfort, economy, and manufacturing enterprise of the American Nation." Although anthracite's reign as a primary industrial fuel was brief, its dominance in the home heating field continued until the early 1920's when it began to be seriously challenged by oil and natural gas.
In addition to symbolizing anthracite mining, Eckley also symbolizes the contributions of the Coxe family to the American coal industry and to U.S. Industrial development in general.
Tench Coxe, the famous political economist and propagandist for American industrial development in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, purchased the future site of the village of Eckley and adjacent coal lands sometime between 1787 and 1793. His grandson Eckley B. Cox, who served as superintendent at Eckley in the late 1880's and early 1890's, did most to develop the family's holdings, eventually making Coxe Brothers and Company, according to Jones, "the largest independent firm in the field." The younger Coxe was also one of the Nation's leading mining engineers. "Among his technical achievements," says his biographer P. B. McDonald, "were the inventions of long steel tapes to use instead of chains for mine-surveying; Coxe's micrometer; an automatic slate-picking chute; corrugated rolls for breaking coal; coal-jigs; gyrating screens; the mechanical stoker; grease-packing for plunger pumps, and application of compressed air to machinery."
Finally, Eckley and its ravaged environment clearly illustrates that economic and technological progress in the United States has been a two-edged sword. Although villages like Eckley provided our industries with energy, influenced the building of transportation systems, provided the chief impetus for the polyglot of cultures that is America, and promoted the development of a strong labor union movement, they did so at a great price. They "left behind," according to Albert E. Peters Associates, "a scarred landscape, piles of culm, acid-stained streams, and timbered-off mountain sides," all of which should be an object lesson for future generations.
Since 1854 Eckley and the land area surrounding it have been the scene of anthracite mining activities. Today the village, surrounded by active strip mining operations, consists of 58 major structures and outbuilding's. Most significant are four Mine Owners' Houses, a Doctor's Office, 47 Workers' Houses, and a Catholic Church and Rectory, all of which are of frame construction and have undergone little exterior alteration since their construction by Sharpe, Weiss, and Company between 1854 and 1874. Unlike most of the early mining' communities Eckley has survived and is presently being" developed by the State of Pennsylvania, says Albert E. Peters Associates, into "a most unusual museum operation, telling the social-economic story of the anthracite coal miner, his family and way of life in a mine patch in the heartland of anthracite coal."
The origins of Eckley can be traced back approximately 600 million years when the geological processes that created the coal responsible for its founding started. At that time, according to geologists, the earth's crust underwent a great down-warping which allowed the sea to cover most of what is now Pennsylvania and the states adjacent to it. During the Paleozoic Era, this marine basin gradually filled with sediment, and approximately 300 million years ago during the Pennsylvanian Period was covered with dense forests of gigantic ferns and trees. These forests were generally located in swampy areas with stagnant water, and when vegetation died, it did not completely decompose but turned into peat. On many occasions, during this period, which lasted nearly 20 million years, the sea covered the swamps, and each time the peat deposits were covered with sand, silt, and clay. Gradually, the pressure of these sediments expelled the moisture and gases from the peat, creating lignite or brown coal.
Sometime after the Pennsylvanian period, certain portions of the eastern United States, including the area around Eckley, underwent a great crustal disturbance which caused the layers of sediment to be folded into anticlines and synclines. Either during or after this folding process, the coal in eastern Pennsylvania encountered geothermal heat of such intensity that it was converted into anthracite, a metamorphic rock. During the Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras, however, large scale erosion took place which removed much of this anthracite with the exception of a 484 square mile area in eastern Pennsylvania which held the world's largest deposits of the mineral.
For millions of years these anthracite deposits lay undisturbed. Apparently, the Indians made little use of the black rock, and its existence in Pennsylvania was not noted until 1762 when a group of pioneers found it on the banks of the Susquehanna River, near the site of present-day Wilkes-Barre. Although the government arsenal at Carlisle utilized anthracite to make arms during the Revolution and occasional shipments reached the cities along the eastern seaboard by the end of the 18th century, the coal was not used widely outside its own geographical area, says Binder, because of "inadequate and expensive transportation to potential markets, coupled with prevailing ignorance and suspicion of this useful fuel," as well as a plentiful supply of wood."
In the 1820's and 1830's the Nation's eastern cities and industries began to face a severe energy crisis because of a shortage of abundant and cheap wood, and anthracite, because of its intense heat and almost smokeless quality, became the favorite fuel. Almost simultaneously, Pennsylvanians, according to historians Philip S. Klein and Ari Hoogenboom, constructed "cheap, adequate transportation facilities by canal and rail" which "stimulated anthracite production" to meet this demand. As a result, by the end of the Civil War, says Binder, anthracite had become "basic to the comfort, economy, and manufacturing enterprise of the American nation."
The combination of demand and adequate transportation led to the establishment of numerous mining patches like Eckley in the anthracite region. Council Ridge, the site where Eckley is located, had been purchased sometime between 1787 and 1793 by Tench Coxe, who assisted Alexander Hamilton with his reports on manufacturing and who was a noted political economist and propagandist for American industrial development in his own right. Coxe, who had purchased the lands for their coal potential, did nothing to develop them, however, and at his death in 1824, he deeded them to his heirs. In the 1840's a few itinerant woodsmen settled on Council Ridge and began to eke out a meager living by making wooden shingles. In the spring of 1853 coal prospectors Richard Sharpe, Francis Weiss, Asa L. Foster, and John Leisenring visited "Shingletown" and apparently were impressed by the prospects of mining coal there. They formed a partnership called Sharpe, Weiss and Company and obtained a 21-year lease from the Coxe estate.
In 1854 they drilled their first mine shaft and constructed the first houses and buildings in the town, which they first called Fillmore, in honor of the former President, but which in 1857 they renamed Eckley as a tribute to relatives of the Coxe family. Shortly after a branch of the Lehigh Valley Railroad was extended to the village in 1855, the first coal, some 2,000 tons, was shipped. Almost from the beginning, the Council Ridge Colliery proved profitable, and by 1860 Eckley had 150 houses, a store, several coal company buildings, and a population of 500.
Even the Civil War did little to disrupt Sharpe, Weiss, and Company's profitable operations. Although many workers entered the Union Army, their places were taken by immigrant labor, enabling the firm to produce coal for the Union Navy and the lucrative steamboat trade. Unlike many mining patches in the anthracite region, Eckley had little labor trouble after the war and apparently was unaffected by the Molly Maguire movement. Also, Eckley seems to have had fewer mining accidents than other villages and fewer problems due to the fluctuating price of coal.
At the end of 1874 the lease of Sharpe, Weiss and Company expired, and Richard Sharpe decided to retire rather than accept what he considered unfavorable terms for a new lease from the Coxes. Judge John Leisenring, one of the original partners, bought out everyone else, leased Eckley and its colliery for 10 years, and operated under the name of J. Leisenring and Company. Under his direction, mining operations continued to expand, and the population of Eckley eventually reached 1,500. By the late 1870's over 350 men and boys were engaged in mining nearly 144,000 tons of coal.
In 1886 Coxe Brothers and Company took over the operations at Eckley, and Tench Coxe's grandson, Eckley B. Coxe, became superintendent. The younger Coxe had been trained since childhood to manage the family's coal lands, and under his direction, Coxe Brothers and Company became, according to Jones, "the largest independent firm in the field." He was also one of the Nation's leading mining engineers and was responsible for a large number of technological improvements in coal mining and the utilization of coal, the most important of which was the mechanical stoker.
During Eckley B. Coxe's superintendency at Eckley, the mining field was expanded and several new slopes were opened. Because of Coxe's interest in mining coal which many considered unrecoverable, he started strip mining operations at Eckley in the early 1890's, utilizing giant steam shovels. Although this method increased the output of coal, it had disastrous consequences for the village of Eckley because stripping operations required less labor than underground ones. As a result, many miners moved on to other towns, and the village began a gradual decline.
In 1905, ten years after Eckley B. Coxe's death, the Lehigh Valley Railroad purchased the holdings of Coxe Brothers, thus making Eckley a part of the anthracite combination whereby a few railroads acquired a virtual monopoly of the Nation's anthracite mines. In later years Coxe Brothers and Company became an independent firm again, but leased many of its properties like Eckley to other operators such as the Jeddo-Highland Coal Company, J. Robert Baizley, and George Huss.
By the time Coxe Brothers went out of business in 1963, Eckley was virtually a ghost town surrounded by strip mines. That year George Huss purchased the land and the village and continued stripping operations in the area. In 1968 Paramount Pictures' use of the village as the setting for a movie, "The Mollie Maguires," caused citizens from surrounding communities to organize in the hope of preserving and restoring it. In 1969 the Anthracite Museum Heritage Group purchased Eckley, and in 1970 they gave it to the State to develop it into a living museum.
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† Christian, Ralph J., America Association for State and Local History, Historic Landmarks Project, Eckley Historic District, nomination document, 1978, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.